QB Eli Manning is in his 10th season with the Giants. He was acquired in a draft-day trade in 2004.
With six losses and no wins, Manning's team is off to its worst start under his decade-long guidance. The shots at Manning—which are usually ill-timed screen grabs of No. 10 donning what is commonly referred to as "struggle face"—have fired off as rapidly as the New York passer can pump out interceptions.
He has a league-leading 15 on the season.
Although the statistics indicate that it's no question, is Manning really playing much worse than he did as a Super Bowl MVP? Should the Giants organization have expected a meltdown of this proportion upon trading for Manning on draft day way back in 2004?
The signs have all been there, if you look back far enough.
On an early November Saturday in 2002, the Ole Miss Rebels hosted the Auburn Tigers in an SEC clash. The latter had dominated the rivalry leading up to that game; the Tigers were victors in 17 of the prior 19 meetings with their neighboring state adversaries.
As the Ole Miss faithful ambled up from The Grove for the game's 11:30 a.m. start, New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi was already on the sideline, watching the teams warm up on a gray, chilly November morning in Oxford, Mississippi. According to Accorsi's foreword in "Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback" by Ralph Vacchiano, it was the first time he was seeing the Rebel quarterback play in person.
Manning threw three touchdowns and three interceptions that day, as he nearly led what Accorsi described as "a vastly inferior Mississippi team" to a fourth-quarter comeback over Auburn. Ole Miss fell, 31-24, with the game essentially ending on a Manning pick in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Yet Accorsi insisted he "had seen all [he] needed to see." Seventeen months later, the Giants pulled off one of the boldest draft-day trades in league history to acquire Eli Manning.
What exactly did Accorsi see in Manning on that November Saturday? It's easier to begin with what he was not seeing in Kerry Collins, the Giants' starting quarterback from 1999-2003.
In his first season as the full-time starter, Collins led the 2000 Giants to 12 wins and a bid in Super Bowl XXXV. During the regular season, New York's new passer put up top-10 season totals for completions, yards and touchdowns. But under the bright lights of the league's biggest game, Collins completed only 38 percent of his passes and tossed four interceptions.
The Giants could ride Collins to the gates of the proverbial Promised Land, but the recycled quarterback never possessed the key to get in.
Accorsi knew what greatness looked like at the quarterback position. He was around Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall and Bert Jones during his eight-year tenure in the Baltimore Colts' front office. He knew what it felt like to have a once-in-a-generation prospect slip through his grasp, as John Elway's great escape from Baltimore and subsequent landing in Denver in 1983 immediately led to Accorsi's resignation as the Colts' assistant general manager.
Back to his Baltimore days Accorsi reverted, however, when watching Manning guide his grossly overmatched Rebels against the Auburn Tigers. According to his forward in Vacchiano's book, that was when Accorsi recalled an adage first spoken to him in 1970 by Milt Davis, a Colts scout at the time:
"You evaluate the quarterback on one element alone: Can they take their team down the field, with the championship on the line, and into the end zone?"
Nowadays, scouts fritter over fractions of seconds. Professional prospects are scrutinized ad nauseam. Assessing the team's most vital position on grounds as simple as Davis' certainly seems antiquated, but Accorsi claims those exact words assured him that Manning must one day be a Giant.
The scouting reports match Accorsi's account. In its 2004 draft report of the Ole Miss quarterback, Sports Illustrated said, "[Eli]does not possess the same detailed nature or overall quarterback intangibles," as his older brother Peyton. Manning wasn't a run-of-the-mill game manager, and anyone who watched him play knew he was no athletic specimen. He was crushed by Oklahoma quarterback Jason White and Pittsburgh Panther wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the 2003 Heisman Trophy voting.
What set Manning apart as a professional prospect, however, was his unmatched toughness, fearlessness and willingness to make any play. Perhaps his true potential was being muffled by a hardly competitive Ole Miss squad.
When placed in a winning environment, Accorsi surely believed, Manning could deliver the ultimate mark of success for an NFL general manager: a Super Bowl title.
During Eli Manning's formative years as a pro, Giants fans mostly witnessed wobbly-armed numbers. In fact, he has only enjoyed statistical prominence as of recently. Manning completed less than 60 percent of his passes in each of his first four seasons with the Giants; his touchdown and interception totals barely differed in each of those seasons.
Manning would drop downright stinkers, as more than a few began to wonder if New York's quarterback project would ever take shape. A few signature wins—like his last-second thriller against the Denver Broncos in 2005 and his come-from-behind overtime victory over the Philadelphia Eagles a year later—held out hope within the franchise and its fanbase that Accorsi's autonomous idea could one day flesh out.
If it was going to happen, though, it would be without the man behind the acquisition of Manning. Accorsi retired following the Giants' 8-8 2006 season, which concluded with a 23-20 loss to the Eagles in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. A young Manning was going into only his fourth season.
Both the '05 victory over the Broncos and '06 victory over the Eagles featured a Manning-orchestrated, game-winning drive. That would become much more commonplace starting in 2007, specifically the playoffs. Manning's play lifted the 10-win Giants to a Super Bowl that season, unexpectedly toppling the previously undefeated New England Patriots and eventual Canton shoo-ins Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
A year after leaving the game, Accorsi's vision was finally realized.
Manning reveled in his newfound legitimacy, though never shaking his perceived bad habits. In 2010, Manning broke the 30-touchdown mark for the first and only time of his career; he also set a career-high with 25 interceptions. When quarterbacked by Eli Manning, your team was expected to take the good with the bad.
That was until Manning's superhuman 2011 season. Not even Accorsi could have predicted the level to which Manning raised his play that season, especially considering the lack of a running game and a depleted receiving corps that the Giants' signal-caller was dealt to start the season. He led the nine-win Giants to another Super Bowl over the favored Patriots; once again, everything seemed to go Manning's way when it mattered most.
Accorsi's risky first-round investment was still paying dividends eight years after the trade went down, five seasons after the former GM had retired.
Not all of Manning's success is the byproduct of dumb luck, but I challenge you to name an NFL starter that has ridden Fortune's wheel to stardom as effectively as the man currently under center for the Giants. He is now famous for two miraculous Super Bowl tosses, both of which changed the outcome of the respective championships in which they occurred.
What Giants fans are currently witnessing in 2013 are multiple examples of these potentially heroic plays gone terribly wrong. On another day, Manning's pass to Tyree is knocked loose by future Hall-of-Famer Rodney Harrison; under different circumstances, Manning's pass doesn't fall perfectly into Manningham's waiting arms as a pair of Patriots simultaneously close in on him.
Many of Manning's most memorable plays were successfully executed by the skin of his teeth. He usually likes his receivers' chances to make a play on a 50-50 ball, and he's not afraid to chuck it up there, hoping for the best. In 2013, those plays simply haven't gone his way.
Remember, Fortune's wheel is constantly turning, and, boy, she can be unforgiving.
The Giants are a bad team. And when you put Eli Manning in a bad situation, you're going to get ugly results. Just ask Ernie Accorsi, who watched him play with a 7-6 Ole Miss team in 2002; he'll give you flashes of greatness, but there's an undeniable chance that the contest comes down to a game-clinching interception.
Sounds familiar, right?
To suggest that Manning's talent has suddenly dropped off less than two years removed from his second Super Bowl MVP is asinine. Ask yourself, have Manning's passes really looked that different in 2013? Is there a throw in the game from which he has ever backed down? And do you expect him to make every one over the course of a 10-year career?
Eli Manning is...
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you don't know Eli Manning. He is the team's steadfast captain, and he wants desperately to be the Giants' go-to playmaker. No, he is not a "perfect" quarterback like his brother, but that certainly hasn't ever affected his confidence (see radio interviews with Michael Kay in 2011 and Mike Francesa last week).
I'm not even sure why we're talking about Manning when cornerback Terrell Thomas believes there are players in the Giants' locker room that flat-out "don't care" about the team's abysmal start, according to the Daily News.
One thing is for certain: Manning is not one of them.
With fans practically begging for some change of pace on offense—whether it be more hurry-up or quick-release dropbacks or anything, really—Manning vows not to get "gun-shy" (via WFAN). He says this behind an aged and patchwork offensive line, armed with hardly any running game and backed up by the league's worst defense in terms of points allowed.
Whether Manning's to blame or not, one must admire the fact that Eli's willing to go out the same way he's always made his (and Accorsi's) buck—with guns a-blazin'.